Winner: Santa Cruz Hightower
What makes the Santa Cruz Hightower great? For starters, it's not just a plus bike; it's a trail ripping, do-it-all singletrack slayer that can be set up with 27.5+ wheels and a 150mm fork or 29er hoops and 140mm of front end squish. Regardless of set-up, geometry stays true to designer intention thanks in part to flip chip in the shock-driving link. This subtle adjustment assures that the bike's aggressive angles stay the same no matter your preferred tire girth, and it allows riders some leeway in case they change their mind about what wheel/tire size is best for them.
Whether you opt for wagon wheels or plus-sized fun, you'll benefit from a slack, 67-degree headtube angle, flickable 434mm chainstays, and low'ish 13.2-inch bottom bracket height (threaded BB, of course).
The suspension is a slightly re-worked version of the ever popular VPP that's been a mainstay of the Santa Cruz stable for years. It delivers superb straight-line stability at speed no matter how nasty the rock garden, and when the bike is pointed uphill, pedaling is efficient, allowing the rider to keep the stock RockShox Monarch shock in open mode for better traction and overall control. This uphill acumen is bolstered by a 74.3-degree seat tube angle that keeps you in attack mode and the front wheel solidly planted on the trail.
For pure trail taming traction (not to mention increased fun factor) the plus set-up is the way to go.
Hub spacing is boost and the bike works with 1x drivetrains only, which is just fine with us because frankly, we're done with front derailleurs. Other notable features include a smartly designed carbon sleeve that's molded directly into the downtube, making rear derailleur cable routing a painless procedure. We also love the 31.6mm diameter seat tube, which plays nice with RockShox's 150mm Reverb dropper, a stock component across the line.
Build options range from high end carbon frame and high zoot components for $7800, to more budget friendly mid-range carbon frame and bits for $4600. The only thing missing is an alloy model, but we'd bet that'll come down the pike in 2017. Bottom line, the Santa Cruz Hightower can do a lot of things and do them well. And that's what you want from a plus bike, or any mountain bike for that matter. For more of the nitty gritty details on one of 2016's best all-around rides, check out the Mtbr first ride review.
Runner Up: Rocky Mountain Pipeline
Similar to the Hightower, Rocky Mountain's gnar munching Pipeline plus bike uses an adjustable system of interlocking flip chips. That means the frame can be set-up with anywhere from a 67.2 to 68.8-degree head tube angle. Rear suspension is 130mm, but the bike's true intentions are revealed by its 150mm stock fork. Imagine that anywhere you'd normally grab a fistful of brake, you're now letting go and holding on for a woohoo fun ride and you understand this bike. It was made to tackle the near-to-home-base North Shore trails that have long played a role in Rocky's product development. And will do just fine on your backyard's most technical challenges, too.
Honorable Mention: Specialized Stumpjumper FSR 6Fattie
Call this a lifetime achievement award. As one of the pioneers of the whole plus bike phenomenon, Specialized deserves props for leading the big brand charge into what has become one of the industry's most popular categories. The Big Red S also made these big-tired bikes more attainable thanks to a product line that ranges from the $8500 S-Works model all the way down to the $3000 FSR Comp offering. Yes, we'd prefer narrower tires and wider rims than the stock 30mm inner rim width paired with 3.0 tires. But that doesn't take away from the importance of this bike and the path it's helped blaze.
This post is part of the Mtbr Best of 2016 awards series. You can see all this year's announced winners here.